Something Borrowed, Something Blue: How 'Fifty Shades' Made Fan Fiction "Mainstream"

Something Borrowed, Something Blue: How 'Fifty Shades' Made Fan Fiction "Mainstream"

Imagine a Harry Potter story where Harry Potter didn’t get married to Ginny Weasley. Instead, he fell in love with his best friend Hermione Granger, his enemy Draco Malfoy or even with his potions teacher Severus Snape?

Admittedly it may sound twisted (especially the last one), but they are some of the works you can find in the wonderful world of fan fiction – where stories are created by borrowing characters and settings from a particular TV show, manga, anime, comic book, film or other piece of creative work. This even includes the Bible. And while it may share the same characters, the fanfic can deviate from the story or even replace it by putting the characters in an alternative universe.

There are no rules and no limits when writing. However, there are things that quality fan fiction writers avoid – such as self-inserting themselves into the plot, and the so-called Mary Sue – a character that lacks depth, poorly developed and very unrealistic.

Fan fiction has always been something confined to the fandom communities; and while it has been around before the invention of the internet, modern technology has allowed for easier distribution and wide availability of fan works, including fan fiction and fan art.

But that entire thing changed when Fifty Shades of Grey, written by E.L. James, was published by a mainstream book publisher, Vantage. It was previously published as an ebook by a smaller book publisher in Australia back in 2011. However, its origins was in fan fiction. Titled Master of the Universe, it was Twilight fan fiction – more specifically, Twilight smut fan fiction.

The original Twilight fan fiction has now been taken down by James and has been trying to remove any mention of it on the web. She even went so far in getting the Wayback Machine to remove all snapshots of her previous website. However, if you do a bit of Googling, some devoted fans have posted PDF copies of the original novel. And you get such wonderful pieces of prose, such as:

Edward, embarrassed or frustrated by the lavish attention I’m receiving from the remaining Cullens, grabs my hand and pulls me to his side.”Well let‘s not frighten her away or spoil her with too much affection,” he grumbles.”Oh Edward, stop teasing.”

Many have noted that Fifty Shades is essentially Master of the Universe except a change of characters, with Bella and Edward being replaced with Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. One blogger, Jane Little from Dear Author, compared the two texts with Turnitin, used to compare student papers against other student papers. The result? “According to Turnitin, the similarity index was 89%,” according to Little.

But despite negative reviews and criticism of the writing by professional book reviewers, according to Amazon UK, Fifty Shades of Grey outsold the entire Harry Potter series combined (based on their records); and because of its explicit details of sex and largely female fanbase, it has been described as “mommy’s porn”.

And due to its success, it has also seen other fan fiction pieces being “reworked” – given the copyright issues surrounding the entire art (which is explained later). Some include Beautiful Bastard and Gabriel’s Inferno, both previously fan fiction pieces written by Twilight fans, will now join Fifty Shades on the bookshelves – all with their porn without plot storylines.

And the list is growing – either by self-publishing or through a smaller publisher, since it is now easy to make an ebook and sell it through marketplaces like the Amazon Kindle bookstore.

Some people within the fan fiction community, however, don’t like this trend of commercialism. And it’s understandable – they strongly believe that these authors are “cashing in” on something that is, and should remain, entirely free.

“It’s an easy way to cash in because there’s already a built-in fanbase that is able to market the book via word of mouth. It’s a disservice to the original text and its author, and essentially they aren’t producing an original piece of text — even if they have edited and reworked the fanfiction to avoid copyright infringement over characters or setting,” writes a user known as “Has” on Dear Author.

“The original root of that story is based on another author’s fictional playground.”

Personally, I have not read of Fifty Shades (it’s pretty clear why, I am not female). But I am still flabbergasted at its success. So why has it been so successful? People have linked it to the explicit mentions of bondage and fulfilling women’s sexual fantasy; but also due to word of mouth. I am leaning towards the “word of mouth” explanation on why it has been successful – and all you need to do is look at its roots.

It is unadulterated Twilight smut. And regardless of what you may think of her writing, Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially “fan service”, a term originally from Japan to describe a piece of work intentionally written to please its audience and giving exactly what they want – in this case, it was mainly catered towards those on “Team Edward”.

That being said, I am not sure if Twilight fans wanted to see Edward and Bella in several sexual acts described in the book. The author herself, Stephenie Meyer, told MTV News that Fifty Shades was “not [her] thing”, but also congratulating James for her success.

But while Meyer is supportive, other authors have mixed feelings in regards to fan fiction. Harry Potter’s J.K Rowling is supportive of her fans to write fan fiction, provided that they keep it non-commercial. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, is opposed to his fans writing fan fiction.

In a blog post, Martin wrote, “Those of us… who prefer not to allow fan fictioners to use our worlds and characters are not doing it just to be mean. We are doing it to protect ourselves and our creations.”

“My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I’m sure that’s true, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still…,” he added.

Then we get into the legal problems – is it copyright infringement? Some authors who ask fans not to produce fan fiction of their work, believe that that fan fiction does constitute infringement. Others, like the Organisation for Transformative Works – a non-profit organisation that advocates for the right to produce fan work like fan fiction – believe it falls under the “fair use” definition.

In Japan, where doujinshi is considered to be fan fiction of manga, it is a different story. Despite being against its copyright laws, many authors do not complain. Some manga writers even produce doujinshi of their own work. While there have been some exceptions – such as the time Nintendo tried to prevent someone from distributing an erotic Pokemon doujin – they are often seen as free promotion of their work.

Fan fiction will continue, regardless of the author’s consent. Why? As Marc Fennell noted in a 2011 Hungry Beast piece, we live in a remix culture. “So much creativity is built on violating copyright, on reusing, reinterpreting and recombining bits of pop culture,” he says.

“The real question is why would you want to lock up these works?”

The internet is a powerful thing, and creativity – regardless if it is original or derivative – will continue to flourish. The barriers to publish their works have been radically overhauled; anyone can post their fan fiction stories easily (and for free). Fifty Shades has only opened another pathway of distributing their work – publishing.

While the pornographic nature of Fifty Shades of Grey has pretty much made sure that mainstream people will now see fan fiction as an extension to porn, it is entirely not true. Yes, there is some erotica fan fiction stories (and a lot of them poorly written), but there are some good, well-written stories.

It all depends on what you’re in to.

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